Obama: High-risk initiatives
Washington, Sept. 25: For five years, President Obama has publicly struggled with the question of when America is willing to act as the world’s policeman, and when he will insist that others take the lead, or at least share the risks, costs and resentments it engenders.
He surged forces into Afghanistan only to quickly reverse himself, speeding the withdrawal with the declaration that “it is time to focus on nation-building here at home”. He briefly joined the fight to halt a slaughter in Libya, but left quickly and refused to go into Syria, a far more complex civil war he saw as nothing but a potential quagmire.
His speech yesterday at the UN signalled how what some have called the Obama Doctrine is once again evolving.
In his first term, that doctrine was defined by Obama’s surprising comfort in using military force to confront direct threats to the US. But he split with his predecessor George W. Bush in his deep reluctance to use American power in long, drawn-out conflicts where national interests were remote and allies were missing.
At the UN yesterday, Obama drove home the conclusion that he came to after his own party deserted him over a military response to the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 Syrians: The bigger risk for the world in coming years is not that the US will try to build empires abroad, he argued, but that there will be a price to be paid in chaos and disorder if Americans elect to stay home.
To Obama’s mind, his aides say, his worldview has changed little since he came to office in 2009, after a campaign promising to end a “dumb war” and to renew outreach to America’s adversaries.
But his image around the world is radically different from what it once was. From South Asia to West Asia, his presidency became known more for roughly 400 drone strikes against affiliates of al Qaida and cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear programme, both of which he saw as direct threats.
Now, after a remarkable month that began with his planning and then aborting a Tomahawk missile strike against the military facilities of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Obama has recommitted himself, he told world leaders yesterday, to devoting the rest of his presidency to two high-risk diplomatic initiatives: finding a negotiated end to the Iran confrontation, and creating a separate state for the Palestinians that Israel can live with, without fear.
Success in a region that has stymied two Bushes and two Clintons would become the legacy issue of his presidency — but three years and four months is not a long time to resolve disputes that date back decades.
Conspicuously missing from those two top priorities was a strategy for a lasting solution in Syria, apart from assuring the world that, by negotiation or force, its chemical stockpiles would not be released again and the country would not become a safe haven for terrorist groups. But Obama did not describe a long-range strategy.
What makes the task all the harder for Obama is a sense that American power in the region is diminished — partly because US forces have left Iraq; partly because Obama’s own team has been deeply divided on when to intervene; and partly because Obama’s own declaration of the “pivot” to Asia has been interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as evidence he has given up on West Asia.
One could hear echoes of that frustration in his speech to the General Assembly, when Obama came to the edge of mocking those who accuse America of intervening to seek resources or influence across the globe.
At once the US “is chastised for meddling in the region, and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy”, he said, even as it “is blamed for failing to do enough,” and for “showing indifference towards suffering Muslim populations”.
But a parallel debate has played out in the Situation Room of the White House, time and again.
When his defence secretary at the time, Robert Gates, and his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, told him that he would be crazy to intervene in Libya, secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donilon’s successor, Susan E. Rice, recalled the massacre of 800,000 Rwandans during the Clinton presidency, and said Obama could not allow another genocide in the making.
Reluctantly, Obama agreed, and ordered a bombing attack, alongside Nato and the Arab League.